Soe Tjen Marching speaks with Jemma Purdey about her activism seeking truth and reconciliation on 1965 and the deeply personal story that motivates it.
Your activism on 1965/66 is dynamic and diverse in its approaches. Can you tell us a little about your background and the reasons for your work on this issue?
I am the youngest in my family. Out of fear for our safety and to protect me, my mother and siblings did not want me to hear terrible things about my father, as he was imprisoned from 1966 for about two and a half years and brutally tortured. I was born after he was released. However, when I was about five years old, I overheard someone saying that my father had been in prison, so I asked my mother and siblings about this.
My family told me all kinds of lies. Unfortunately, none of them was a good liar. So, every time I asked different members of my family about my father the possibilities could be endless: it was like ‘choose your own adventure’ for me. Life was never boring!
My father was also a difficult person. He was often depressed and angry for no reason. One of his hobbies was torturing animals (especially rats). Of course, this influenced our relationship and I believe that his temperament had a lot to do with his imprisonment. I was really ashamed of having a father like that when I was young.
My father passed away in 1998, a few months after Suharto stepped down, and only then was my mother able to tell me more about him. She told me that he had joined an organisation considered communist, but that he was never involved in politics. I wanted to write his story but my mother banned me from doing so. ‘It is too risky’, she said.
In mid-2013 after I saw Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing, I was motivated to know more about my family and the stories of other people affected by the ’65 atrocities. I knew that there would be many people in the same boat as me, who kept quiet because of the stigma. I could not lose the momentum provided by this film. I knew I just had to do it now or never. I founded a solidarity group for the survivors and the victims’ families of the 1965 genocide.
Then, I travelled to Indonesia from August to September 2013 to interview survivors and victims’ families. A few days before I headed back to London at the end of 2013, my mother called me. She asked me to sit down, then slowly said: ‘Your father was actually one of the committee members of the Indonesian Communist Party in Surabaya’. So, all the stories I had heard about my father never having been involved in any communist group were lies?
My mother thought it was too dangerous to be honest, even to her children. I was the first person in my family who finally heard the truth from her. So many years of silence, of keeping secrets. How could she do this? And how could he have stayed alive if he was a committee member? My mother told me that he had just been appointed when Gestok (the 1 October Movement) happened. So not many people knew about it.
I didn’t know with whom I could share this news. It was just too much for me to handle it by myself. I decided to email Joshua Oppenheimer. His reply: ‘What a moving story, Soe Tjen – but not surprising given the “Marching” in your name!’ Yes, that is why my name is Marching – from the long march of Chairman Mao.
Having realised just how many secrets my mother had to keep makes me more aware of the burdens that people have to bear because of these atrocities, even until now. This makes me want to keep working on this issue.
One of the fora for your activism is Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara (the Archipelago Diversity Foundation), which publishes Majalah Bhinneka (Diversity Magazine). When did the foundation begin and who is involved? What is its mission?
Actually before Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara, I founded Lembaga Bhinneka (the Diversity Institute) in 2010. Our mission was to promote human rights and to fight against religious fundamentalism in Indonesia. But because of my departure to live in London in 2012, I had to leave Lembaga Bhinneka in the hands of several friends in Indonesia. Unfortunately, there was a conflict among the committee members in 2014, and because of the carelessness of the notary in Indonesia, a person whose name was on the deed of establishment and who disagreed with my activism, managed to kick me out of the organisation I founded.
So, I decided to establish another organisation, called Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara in June 2015. The support of my friends in Indonesia was incredible. They did all they could to grow the new organisation. Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara concentrates on human rights violations in the past, to fight against the politics of forgetting, which is now a quite popular attitude in Indonesia. People keep saying ‘let us forgive and forget’ for any human rights violations in the past. But isn’t it funny that those who are so enthusiastic in promoting this still cannot forget the stigma against communism? This is indeed a case of selective ‘forgive and forget’!
We have no funding whatsoever, so we fund everything with our own money. My friends in Indonesia, who do not earn that much, are willing to donate money as well so that our magazine and other projects can continue. We also sell T-shirts and books to fund the publication. The people at Bhinneka Nusantara make me feel so positive about Indonesia. Despite the corrupt government and the New Order cronies that are still in power, Indonesia still has ‘treasures’ in people who care for others and who work hard without expecting any reward except for the hope that Indonesia will become a better place where human rights are respected. I am really grateful to them. Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara is nothing without them. At the moment, Yayasan Bhinneka Nusantara publishes a magazine every four months and has branches in 22 cities in Indonesia. All this happens without any funding. I am really grateful for all their work.
You have also played a crucial part in the International People’s Tribunal on 1965. What is your role in the IPT? Can you comment on its progress until now?
I am the British coordinator of the IPT ’65. I am not sure how crucial my role is because I believe that others have more crucial roles and they have worked hard for the IPT.
The International People’s Tribunal Against Human Rights Violations in 1965 Indonesia (IPT ’65) is an initiative by the community, to direct attention to this grave abuse of human rights and the impact it had on the community. Because the government has done nothing in relation to the atrocities in 1965, we the people decided to take action. The IPT was held in The Hague from 10 to 13 November 2015. The IPT is similar to a formal court but it operates outside the mechanisms of government. Its authority comes from the voices of the victims as well as that of civil society.
On the last day of the tribunal, the judge concluded that the state of Indonesia was responsible for the gross human rights violations in 1965-66. At the moment, the judges are examining the papers and documents submitted to them, to check the validity of these documents. Their final decisions will be delivered in November 2016.
In April 2016, a visit to Europe by President Jokowi coincided with the government-sponsored national symposium ‘Dissecting the 1965 Tragedy through an Historical Approach’ in Jakarta. When he was in London, you found the opportunity to ask Jokowi a question on this issue. Can you describe this event and outline your questioning and Jokowi’s response?
In the beginning, I had no plan to meet Jokowi at all. I thought: what for? But when Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, the coordinator of IPT ’65, contacted me and suggested that I give the letter of the IPT ’65 to Jokowi, I immediately tried to get an invitation. In the UK, Indonesian citizens could get the invitation to the event online on a first come first served basis. The event took place at the residence of the Indonesian ambassador to the UK. There were over one thousand visitors but most of them were just interested in shaking hands and taking photos with the president. When he was approaching the visitors there was mayhem around him, as people jostled to have photos with him. No wonder there was hardly a critical question asked of him that day. He was like a celebrity to them. What they wanted was just an opportunity to speak with him and to be close to him.
It is disappointing that most people do not see their president as the official who has to work for the people. For me, a president is a servant for the people: he is paid with the state’s money, so he should serve us. Therefore, we must demand that he does his job properly, especially when it comes to human rights: this is our obligation as the people of Indonesia. More and more Indonesians should be aware of their obligation to protest and of the president’s to serve.
Therefore, I disagree with the term ‘head of state’ for president. He is not. A president should be called a worker for the state. He is an employee, our employee. We (from our taxes) pay for him to do his job properly.
At the event in London, Jokowi gave a talk about the importance of competition in trade and business. He is clearly a supporter of a free market. After his speech, the ambassador only allowed three questions and I was honestly shocked when the ambassador asked me to go forward, because there were so many hands raised. I was the last person to ask a question and was prepared to be booed by the people there.
I asked Jokowi why Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan had stated that the government would not apologise for ’65 and I demanded that following the recommendations of Komnas HAM (National Commission on Human Rights) and Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence Against Women) he straighten out the history about ’65, and order that independent research be done.
Jokowi answered that he had not made any decision yet because he had not heard the reports of the minister of defence and Komnas HAM on this issue. At precisely this time in Jakarta, the national symposium on 1965 had just got under way, so he could not yet comment on it. He stated that he still did not really understand what happened, and that this kind of thing took time.
In short, he answered my question without actually answering it. It strikes me as pathetic that a president who is supposed to be ‘reformist’, claims that he does not know much about one of the biggest genocides the world has seen, that happened in his country. The deputy head of Komnas HAM told CNN that Komnas HAM had sent its report and recommendations on the matter to Jokowi on 10 December 2014. Yet, Jokowi told me he had not seen it.
What was the response in Indonesia and outside, to your questioning of the president?
As I prepared to ask Jokowi my question, I was ready to be booed. However, after I finished, I heard more clapping than booing. Only a few people in the front booed me. But I think people got upset when I interrupted when Jokowi was answering my question. He said he had not made any decision about 1965 at which point I interrupted to ask why Luhut had said the state would not apologise. As president, Jokowi has more of a right to speak on behalf of the state, but Luhut keeps talking as if he represents the state. It seems that there is a conflict amongst high officials in Indonesia.
After the event was over, one or two people approached me and said they were happy I asked the question, but they asked me not to criticise Jokowi too much because he is pressured by many New Order cronies who are still in power now. As a consequence, they were suggesting, he cannot move too radically or else he will be accused of being a communist or a communist sympathiser. I guess it is something of an irony that a president who is clearly pro-free market and who deals reluctantly with human rights abuses in Indonesia’s past, is in danger of being accused of being a communist as well.
So, the reactions have been mixed. The BBC and Kompas ran brief reports about my questioning of Jokowi, but The Jakarta Post put it on the front page and it circulated on social media. I have received threats again recently, but I am not sure whether this is directly related to my questioning of Jokowi or not.
Your latest writing project involves chronicling the lives of victims of 1965. Why do you think telling these stories remains important fifty years on?
Any history is important for us, and there is no out-of-date history because in the end everything is related. Concerning 1965, I especially witness how the atrocities still have strong impacts on people’s lives now. Remember for instance a scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Look of Silence: Adi’s father crawls and asks for help. He is lost in his own home and thinks that someone is about to beat him up. However, no one was about to beat him up. He was in a room with his own son, Adi, who was filming him. Adi’s father has forgotten about the gruesome events of half a century ago. He cannot even remember the name of his son who was murdered in 1965. Yet, the memory of the murder has not been deleted. And his sense of powerlessness has not simply vanished, especially because his son’s murder remains unresolved.
Adi’s father is not the only one. I have seen many victims enter into old age while being haunted by their pasts. They tend to forget more recent events, but those that are in the more distant past can suddenly resurface, often in other forms. The terror created by the New Order is enduring for decades and across different generations. Although the survivors and their families have demonstrated incredible strength and bravery, fear still persists long after the New Order and Suharto’s rule ended. This seems to have been the strategy of Suharto and his cronies: be as brutal as possible, so that fear can become like a ghost and scare anyone, everyone, even the generations to come. The brutality remains alive in many people’s memories, even in those who were born long after the atrocities happened. Even my mother and sister are terrified because of my activism; she does not want similar things happen again to our family. They continue to discourage me from writing my book about the lives of the 1965 victims.
The covering up and lies around 1965 affect relationships among people in Indonesia personally as well as socially. Why do racism and discrimination persist now? Because the New Order cronies are still in power and they still stigmatise communism. People’s Consultative Assembly Decree No. 25/1966 is still used to stigmatise any activities considered ‘communist’. Many Indonesians don’t really know what this means. Most of them still think that communists are the same as atheists and both are considered evil. Well, I am openly atheist and a daughter of a communist, so the stigma that communists are atheists somehow fits me. The funny thing is many also equate communism and liberalism with atheism.
Recently, I was accused of being a young communist cadre who wanted to revive the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) and I received countless threats. Also, many peaceful meetings discussing 1965 have recently been disbanded. So, even now, many survivors and activists are still threatened and persecuted. When people feel threatened they tend to see others as either friends or foes. To protect themselves they tend to ‘discriminate’ as well.
The events of over 50 years ago still influence how Indonesians perceive their identities. And in fact, these atrocities have impacts not just on Indonesia but also on the world. As Joshua Oppenheimer wrote in The Guardian recently, global warming has roots in the 1965 genocide. Because New Order cronies are still in power, they continue the capitalistic system of repression and thus they only think about profit and not about other people, or the environment.
Importantly, in the past year politicians all over the world made comments about the Indonesia forest fires and the haze. However, most of them do not see it in a wide enough scope. Everything is related. We should never forget and should not ignore any human rights abuses anywhere in the world. We cannot say what happens somewhere else has nothing to do with our lives! It has. It always has. If not now, it will in the future, whether directly or indirectly.
Thus, the ongoing impunity for the perpetrators of the 1965 genocide is not just a problem concerning Indonesia, but a problem for all of us.
This interview was conducted over email in May 2016.
The IPT Final report was released on 20 July 2016. The Press Statement on the findings and recommendations of the IPT 1965 can be read here.